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Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences

By Donald E. Polkinghorne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
Human Existence and Narrative

THE three previous chapters have reviewed the treatment of narrative by the disciplines of history, literary theory, and psychology. This chapter, on theory, and the next, on practice, pull together the themes developed in those earlier chapters and supplements them with Heidegger's investigations. The purpose is to assemble a narrative theory for the practice of the human disciplines.

According to a narrative theory of human existence, a study needs to focus its attention on existence as it is lived, experienced, and interpreted by the human person. This interpretation finally involves the processes of language, as well as the order of meaning, which interacts with and brings to language the physical and organic orders.

Heidegger has proposed that human experience in its original form is hermeneutically meaningful. 1 Narrative is a primary scheme by means of which hermeneutical meaningfulness is manifested. A theory of human existence that can inform the practice of the human sciences will need to make explicit the centrality of narrative in human experience and existence. The first section of the chapter attends to the function of narrative in levels of temporality as they appear in human experience, and the second section develops an understanding of human action as it is configured in the temporal order by narrative. The final section deals with the role of narrative in the definition of self and personal identity.

The object of inquiry for the human disciplines is the human being, and in order for these disciplines to function properly as generators of knowledge about their subject, they must have knowledge tools that can respond to the particular characteristics of human beings. The development of formal science during the Enlightenment was based on the notion that reality, including human beings, was ultimately located on a plane consisting of objects whose actions and reactions were governed by stable laws: In this perspective, human existence was considered to be simply one object among others—a corrective to the revelatory notion that the nature of human existence was primarily spiritual and was governed by a relationship to God rather than by the laws of nature. Yet the Enlightenment definition of human existence was overly reductive. It neglected the significance of language for the understanding the human realm. In order to be cogent, the human sciences need to develop a theory that attends to all the strata of human existence.

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